Progress Report: Middle Ground Journal Undergraduate Student Interns and North Star Academy 8th Grade Global Studies Classes, Spring 2013
By Hong-Ming Liang, Kathryn Hirsch, Marin Ekstrom, Lee Bongey, Andy Fellows, Mykhaylo Ignatenko, and Stephanie Jenson.
Below are reflections by The Middle Ground Journal's undergraduate student interns as we finish the first full year of collaboration with North Star Academy 8th grade global studies classes. Our spring semester was mostly devoted to North Star Academy's 8th graders working on their National History Day research. We will reflect upon lessons gathered from this year and redesign the project for the next school year. Some of the main modifications are: 1. We will visit North Star at a regular weekly interval, maybe once a week, as a group, on a set date. Whenever possible we will schedule these visits at the beginning of the semester. 2. We will have a smaller, full time student intern group, and separate the "guest speaker" function to allow the broader college and area community members to participate. 3. We will plan and schedule for the National History Day project over the summer. 4. The journal's undergraduate and graduate student volunteers will begin to explore other facets of the journal's work -- with projects within book review section, editing, publishing, government relations, open-access movement, marketing, programming, experiential learning, and so on. We will continue to consult internally, and with our host teachers Ms. Smith and Ms. Heins, and to devote most of the summer to preparing for the next school year. We will share lessons from this project at a roundtable at the 2013 World History Association national conference in Minneapolis, and are also working with the American Historical Association to share our experience and lessons. HML
Considering the outcomes of the pilot year for our collaboration with North Star Academy on their new 8th grade global studies program, I am satisfied that our efforts were worthwhile for all involved. With our ultimate goal of effectively introducing and teaching all that “global studies” entails to the middle school students in mind, I believe it can be fairly called a successful start.
As is my wont, I find myself returning mostly to shortcomings in execution; not because my overall impression from participation in the program this year is one of failure but because there is such obvious potential in this collaboration in spite of inevitable first year hiccups. The majority of the issues were simply organizational- problems that came from lack of experience or sufficient time to devote to working out issues were most troublesome. Also problematic, and also unavoidable, were the challenges posed by having to straddle two institutions with their different and sometimes conflicting sets of concerns. While the program clearly benefits from the involvement of two institutions of learning and educators from both the middle school and college level, making arrangements between separate calendars and administrations raised the degree of difficulty. I should emphasize that these challenges were not prohibitive. Though they presented a steep learning curve for this intern and were a source of some frustration generally they were not enough to discourage me from wanting to continue this program.
With some work and time we got into a groove where it felt like everyone knew what they were doing and we were making progress in both the material we wanted to cover and the establishment of the program itself. There were times when trying to manage schedules that strained my patience and moments in the classroom that were awkward. But there were also exciting moments when I was sure that everyone in the room had just learned something together that I don’t think we would have learned studying apart. These moments not only fueled my efforts for the program, they sustained my faith in the value of formal education during what could have otherwise been an exhausting and demoralizing school year.
2.What Worked Well
Best of all was certainly the guest speakers, even before we really figured out a standard format to follow. As was the case with last year’s elective as well, the speakers have proven to be one of our best assets as a program. Their unique perspectives and depth of first-hand knowledge on areas of the world not well-known to the average Minnesotan (or most Americans) were a valuable resource for the students, as well as the student interns and teachers. Their visits were also valuable simply as an experience for students who, being young as they are and not yet able to travel for study or other reasons, don’t often have the chance to interact with people from other countries. Even when it didn’t work splendidly it was worthwhile for the guest speakers and the audience.
Unfortunately, we were not fantastic teachers, but the more targeted presentations worked well and seemed to not only benefit the classes but also forge the knowledge of the presenters in the flames of inadequate teacherdom. (There’s nothing like an epic fail to highlight one’s weaknesses. I hope that others were able to recover; I know we all came to appreciate the special skills of a good 8th grade teacher more.) Some lessons worked well, though, and I think there is still room for a few of those such as having a student present a narrowly-focused topic they grasp thoroughly like when Sam give an overview on basic economic principles or when Andy gave a brief overview of government systems. In both examples, we could have afforded to edit even more strictly, but they were a nice way to mix up how the students learned about a topic, which we’ve learned is helpful at this level. I can see how the planned “Visualize the World” project could be used well by an intern explaining their own chapter, and a similarly structured, defined approach could probably work well applied to other topics as well.
The role-playing game goes in both the “worked well” and “needs improvement” columns. Aspects of it were positive; if we could have harnessed and directed the energy that interns and students brought to it more effectively, it might have really been something. The amount of planning that went into it was substantial though it ultimately fell short. I think a similar activity would be worth trying again now that we’ve learned some lessons about how to go about it.
Volunteering with the National History Day projects was the biggest time commitment made by most of the interns, and I think it was rewarding for them and the NSA students. It offered a chance to exercise the fundamentals and get to see each other at work; I think we learned more about the demands of teaching an 8th grader from this than anything else and I think that from the chance to work through the process of a research project with someone used to college-level work they better understood the point of the requirements for their projects. Also, I don’t think that it is necessary for other aspects of the project for us to get better acquainted but I do think it’s desirable, and this was the best chance for us to do so.
3. What Needs Improvement
We could use more time, for everyone and everything. This would be the biggest help and can be applied to all areas mentioned in this section. I think many of the difficulties can be attributed to the conflicting and overbooked schedules of all parties. If possible, it would help to meet more often with our NSA teachers, as an intern group, and even as one larger group from time to time. It would help to begin preparations well ahead of each new phase, such as the start of each semester and the lead-up to NHD. A magical abundance of free time would do wonders but I think that more targeted use of what little time we do have can be accomplished as we sharpen the focus of our contributions and by virtue of our having laid a year’s worth of groundwork.
Speaking generally about helping in class, I personally was not nearly mindful enough of some considerations that I now realize are constantly on the teachers’ minds. Early this year we brought a documentary to watch with Ms. Smith’s classes. Last year I became much more aware of the need for a range of level for any reading materials used, and for the need to allow for lots of extra time in any given activity just in case. This year, though I anticipated taking breaks for discussion on especially interesting or important points, I didn’t plan on stopping to explain unfamiliar vocabulary or concepts and I was too slow in switching into a mode where I was noticing these instances. Too busy trying to be some kind of teacher-person, I suppose- it’s certainly familiar territory for me as a parent. At any rate, I have had the importance of adaptability in every sense drilled into me, although I have no doubt I will find more areas where I am too slow to adjust. Perhaps it would be beneficial for all interns to have a sort of primer session on being a good presenter with guidelines from the North Star teachers- I know such a thing in one form or another has been discussed- it might be good to do it as a prep session for everyone.
The RPG was a minor fiasco. Just too much happening at once, in separate classrooms with what seemed like separate plans resulting in different games being played- some major points fell by the wayside in the chaos and it was hard to tell what (if anything) we accomplished other than entertaining the majority of the class. The planning and effort that went into arranging it all was significant, especially considering the time constraints of those interns involved at the time, so it was not an accurate reflection of our labor. A good group worked on it and put a lot of thought into it, but still failed to anticipate all the hurdles in execution. It succeeded on one hand in being the product of true collaboration, but didn’t quite make it as a teaching tool and might have been more of a detriment than a boost to company morale on the interns’ end. However, I remain convinced that a game like the one we tried could be done well enough to be purely in the “what worked” section instead of a wash at best and further, that we are capable of working out how.
It really shouldn’t have, but at some points the writing of one-page topic ideas for the National History Day projects reached a near-debacle level. I am pretty much at a loss as to how to address this so I am eager for advice- I thought I was clear about the requirements given by the teachers and about our goals, and I tried to communicate that questions were welcome. Some people did ask for clarification on this or that point and went on to produce solid work on time, but judging from the work I received from some they didn’t understand but didn’t let on. The results were very uneven. I think that somehow I failed to communicate expectations about the work and deadlines precisely, but I hope this can be remedied by having this year’s examples. As it turned out, making these summaries was more work than I thought it would be, especially on the editing end, which I expected to be essentially collecting then copying and pasting text into a uniform template and single document but became quite a bit more work. Nevertheless, the teachers appreciated having the summaries, so it would be good to do regularly and plan on devoting more time to it. It would mean more work for a few individuals, but it would also probably better to give responsibility for the task to only a few capable interns who could work together on creating and collating the summaries.
Volunteering in class for the NHD projects was a good experience for all, but again, more clearly defined parameters based on our experience and feedback from the teachers(for interns’ roles, tasks, time in-class) would help a lot. There was too much idle time in the class but no shortage of work to be done, and disorganization throughout the scheduling process (who’s coming, when, how, for how long, etc.)
4. How Undergrads Benefit
For the work performed by interns working on the Journal’s collaboration with North Star Academy, the standards are higher but the rewards are greater. Whereas much of regular college work can seem like so many worksheets or book reports done strictly for the purpose of being graded, with the consequences being contrived and far removed from the actual subject of study, for this project a student intern must consider the usefulness of their contribution, the veracity of what they present, how they represent the program and the college, and how they represent themselves as model college students to impressionable thirteen-year-olds. The project bridges school and professional expectations rather than being one or the other, offering experience not provided by classes alone or outside employment. Whether they intend to continue in education or not, the rare chance for undergraduates to work in real-world education gives them perspective on their role as students and different approaches to learning.
Student interns have an opportunity to share budding expertise on their specialty and in the process, cement their understanding of its place in the world at large. Global studies is by its nature interdisciplinary, including a wide range such as history, language, economics, geography, and media. By finding the ways that these interrelate, and explaining them to students, the interns expand their expertise and have a more versatile foundation for future learning.
Many of our interns this year are not originally from Duluth. For them, I think the program afforded them the opportunity to connect with the surrounding community in a meaningful way and better understand their place in the city. Many of our interns are also young, and do not have children of their own or even any younger siblings. To see themselves as role models, as adult citizens with an obligation to society at large (especially in contrast to students who are obviously still children), serves to foster a sense of stewardship for the knowledge they’ve gained in their years of scholarship and for the institutions of learning from which they’ve benefited, as well as clarify the purpose of their present studies.
As a history major, I am predictably invested in how history is studied and taught. I can look back on what was and was not effective or enjoyable in my personal experience as a student and what led me to major in history, but this is a very limited experience to draw upon. History is far too immense a study to be contained within any one mind; it relies on the efforts of many. All this is useless if it is not shared, so as it is for any other valuable body of knowledge, teaching is crucial. In spite of my renewed appreciation for the profession, I still do not intend to pursue a career in education, but my understanding of the process has changed how I view my own classes and my consideration of how history is conveyed. Taking part in this program will have a lasting effect on my education and on my approach to research and writing in the field of history.
1. General reflection
Throughout the month of February, I volunteered as a Middle Ground Journal student intern at North Star Academy. This experience involved collaborating with middle school students in order to help them create a National History Day project. My time at the North Star Academy admittedly took me out of my comfort zone, as I am not exactly “cool” when it comes to working with younger students; however, I am glad that I was able to participate in such an enriching opportunity. Therefore, I plan to share how this experience simultaneously put me in the perspective of both a student and teacher, and helped me grow as both a person and a scholar.
Working with the students harkened me back to my own junior high days (as much as I have tried to forget that part of my life), which caused me to revaluate just how much my research methodology has evolved from that period of my life to my current status as an undergraduate student. Middle school stands out as an extremely complicated age to teach, as aptitudes literally range from grade school to post-secondary levels of ability. In addition, junior high serves as the first foray into research, and I think that a combination of that inexperience and the overwhelming schedule and demands of junior high life makes it difficult to truly understand the demands of the project.
The middle schoolers, in general, were great at collecting background information, and had extremely creative, imaginative ways of both collecting research and formatting their projects. However, I think that they were a bit overwhelmed by the overload of available information, and therefore had trouble filtering what information to include, or not to include, in their projects. In turn, because it proved difficult to pick-and-choose through their research, they found it challenging to construct a thesis statement. Instead of having a clear, direct argument as to why their events were historical turning points, their theses tended to be broad statements that elaborated on the historical background on their topics. On the whole, the middle school students proved to be bright, friendly, and excited, and I am honored to have been able to work with them.
I gained a newfound appreciation for the art of teaching as well. I knew that great teacher possess strong academic abilities, such as intellect, curiosity, and a general love of learning and teaching. However, I underestimated the emotional, social aspect of a great teacher. I learned just how vulnerable being a teacher is, and in order to be a great teacher they must have “presence.” I understood this “presence” as the ability to assertively control the class without being too authoritative, to tailor their messages to the general mood of the class, to empathize with the students, and to encourage students to learn and try their best. In short, an ideal teacher must not only possess a high IQ, but also an extraordinary EQ, in order to best inspire their students.
In conclusion, I appreciated how this experience immersed me into the role of both teacher and student. It revealed the strengths and weaknesses of junior high research, and also introduced me to the complex intellectual and empathetic facets of teaching. I hope to use these experiences to not only refine my scholarly and emotional abilities, but to also use these experiences to help others fulfill their potentials.
2.Specific facets that worked well
My main tactic was to ask the students what their topics were, and then to ask more questions about the specific facets of the case (i.e. “Who was involved?” “What happened?” “Why do you think that it was important?”), so that they would have to explain their project in their own words. I don’t know if this was the best technique, but I think it did a fairly good job of having the students vocalize their information, thereby forcing them to thoroughly know their information, have them think more critically about their topics, and allow myself to participate without being too overbearing.
One of the most important lessons that I learned was that students can change their attitudes towards learning. One particular student in the class stood out not only for his intelligent and insightful classroom conduct, but also his charismatic, humorous, and courteous personality. Mrs. Smith revealed that just a year before, she had pretty low hopes for him. However, this year he had completely transformed into a dedicated, outgoing student; he even shared his post-secondary ambitions with us! Therefore, my fellow interns and I were very inspired by this story, which taught us to never “write someone off” too easily.
The next lesson that I learned seemingly contradicts the above statement: if a student had absolutely no intention of working hard on the project, there was a point where you just had to walk away. I worked with some groups where I asked them how they planned to take on their project, and they replied by stating “I don’t know.” Therefore, I tried to brainstorm specific angles to take with them. Some students were genuinely facing obstacles in their research, and just needed a sounding board for ideas before taking the initiative to carry on with their projects. However, I could tell other students were not really listening and were just not committed to the project. This proved to be a tricky situation to deal with, but ultimately I could not force certain students to do their projects, and learned to walk away when I knew that they just would not work hard. I felt that it was their own loss if students did not want to work hard, but ultimately it was up to them, not us, for them to take the initiative on their project.
*Luckily the vast majority of the kids did not “give up” on their projects, and persevered to create fantastic final products!
3.Specific facets that require improvement -- please be specific about how we may improve next year.
I really do not know how much I can contribute to this question, as I started volunteering a little late in the game, and I think that we did a really good job, considering the logistics. But here are my two main ideas:
I think that the biggest obstacle was just the “newness” factor of it all. Already, now that we are past the novelty/experimental stage and have some experience, we will be better equipped for next time.
I also think it would be cool if we could get to know the students on a more personal basis, even if it’s one of those cheesy “what’s your name/major/spirit animal/etc.” introductions. Even though it’s a bit daunting with the amount of students, it would be a nice way to “break the ice” a little bit
4. Give us some specific examples of how an undergraduate student, a future historian/teacher or not, can benefit from participation.
I really appreciated how this experience gave a more “real world” experience to undergraduate life. It’s easy to get “cocooned” in the campus bubble of studying, classes, dorm life, and other pursuits; while these are rich experiences, they can somewhat isolate students from other aspects of daily life. While I admittedly felt awkward when I entered the whole new world of volunteering in a middle school classroom, I admired the fact that it was more hands-on, “dealing with the public” experience. In addition, I think it’s easy for undergraduate students to get wrapped up into themselves at times; however, this project focused on mentoring others with their scholarly pursuits. Therefore, I think serves as a great way to break away from campus and into the public sector, and to also build better interpersonal skills.
Working with the middle school students made me view scholarship and research in a completely different perspective. Helping the eight graders reinforced the importance of several academic concepts (i.e. THE THESIS STATEMENT, crafting an argument vs. just providing broad background information, etc.), and provided a variety of methods to improve abilities in those areas. Therefore, the experience helped me see these elements in a new light, which provided the opportunity to not only help students in these areas, but to also strengthen my own abilities.
Reflection on the Process:
Interning at North Star Academy was a great experience. I think that there are some things that could be done to refine and facilitate the project, but I think the project itself is an excellent one. It reaps benefits for both the middle school students and the interns. I think that the interns’ continued presence with the students throughout each step of their National History Day process made the overall experience especially beneficial and valuable. The interns first began getting involved with this project when we formulated topic ideas for the students, which worked well, with us mostly providing examples for the kinds of projects the students could do. I don’t think it limited what the students thought they could do with their projects at all, which is very good – most of the projects I saw were not on the topics that the interns suggested, but I think it was helpful for students who didn’t have much direction in the kind of project they wanted to do. As the students began work on their National History Day projects, interns were given multiple times a week in which we could come (in my case, I was scheduled to come between 2 – 4 times a week). I would typically come once or twice a week at varying times. Interns had a lot of freedom with the frequency that they came to NSA, as well as with the duration of their stay at the school, which, while it was often nice for the interns, it caused the interns to be have less of a regular connection with individual students. When we were there, interns would get a computer and primarily would help students find sources and give feedback on projects (e.g. specific aspects of a presentation to include or elaborate on). It worked very well, since the interns were able to give the students help from our own experience with researching and research based projects. In the earlier stages of our presence at North Star Academy however, the teachers, students, and interns were not quite used to each other, and it was a little difficult to help the students efficiently. Our last day at North Star Academy was spent seeing the students’ final products; I personally did not help very much with the actually creation of their project boards, websites, power points, etc., but was able to help them refine their final projects a little through proofreading, which I know I’ve always appreciated receiving. In general, working with the NSA students and teachers has been a very educational, fascinating and rewarding experience.
What Worked Well? What Did I Learn?
• Working with a small number of students allowed us to give more help to individuals, and to focus on more specific aspects of students’ projects that needed attention. That focus also more easily permitted the interns asking the students questions about their projects, which I really think is an important thing to have during this process. It causes the students to consider what new elements they may want to add, and deepens/tests their knowledge on their topic for both their own personal benefit, and (in some cases) in order to practice for the Regional National History Day competition.
• I really liked being able to sit in on the students’ class lectures before they began working on their projects each class period. I learned a lot about teaching and about middle school students by observing the class. While I don’t intend to enter a career teaching this age group, I think I could use what I learned in the classroom in other fields/activities that I participate in. For example, I have tutored students in the past, and hope to do so again in the near future, and I think that I will try teaching in a different manner based off of what I learned at NSA. Sitting in on the lectures also gave the interns an opportunity to see where the students were at academically (e.g. do they know about primary/secondary sources), and it gave us some time to look at what projects the students were doing and what we personally would be able to offer the most assistance with.
• Many of these projects were things I knew little to nothing about; I loved being able to learn about a huge variety of topics. The topics that the students found were extremely interesting and creative, and it was very fun to see their final projects.
What Needs Improvement?
• I think that making the interns be less separated and distant from the class would help a lot. Unless the interns had previously done a presentation for the class, interns had never even introduced themselves to the students or the teachers. Perhaps brief introductions that include more information than just a name (e.g. major, interests, sports and activities, etc.) would help the students relate to the interns more, and become acclimated to our presence. Having the interns do brief ice-breaker games with the students (games that are not necessarily related to academics) could help as well.
• Interns also always seem to be separated from the students physically. During the lectures before the students worked on their projects, interns would always stand grouped together in the back of the classroom, which may make us seem more distant and intimidating. I was thinking that maybe if the interns sat next to the students and dispersed themselves throughout the classroom, or if they at least sat down somewhere, it may decrease that initial tension and awkwardness.
• By setting regular times for individual interns to come, I think that it would be easier for interns to work with a select number of students, and thus help students more in depth with their projects.
How Can an Undergraduate Student Benefit?
• This project allows students to get involved in the community. It is very fun to participate in, and the commitment required for this project gives one the opportunity to feel very connected with the students and their projects, which makes it particularly rewarding.
• One can learn fundamentals of teaching and assisting the students from firsthand experience, which are skills that I think can be applied to many other activities. I can also see ways that students that aren’t majoring in history or education could learn fro